Music News & Reviews

Songwriters at play

Singer-songwriter Owen Plant performs at the Pour House in Paso Robles. The evening was part of Steve Key’s songwriter series.
Singer-songwriter Owen Plant performs at the Pour House in Paso Robles. The evening was part of Steve Key’s songwriter series. TRIBUNE PHOTO BY DAVID MIDDLECAMP

Steve Key admits he’s been fired from more jobs than he can count.

“I don’t have any money, I don’t have any health care,” he said. “I drive a 13-year-old car with 214,000 miles on it.”

He’s had the standard day jobs, he said, but he confesses to having a lousy attitude about them. And that’s OK with him. Because what he really loves is music, and he feels his work ought to be somehow tied to that.

“After a while you say, ‘Gee, should I really be doing that kind of work? What do I have a passion for?’ ” he said. “I have a passion for being involved in music.”

Key has long been a singer and songwriter. His song “Record Time” was recorded by country music star Kathy Mattea in 1992. And he has opened for well-known acts like Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson and James McMurtry.

But lately Key has spent much of his time promoting others through his ambitious Songwriters at Play series, now in its third year. The series features live acoustic music in four different venues every week on the Central Coast. Each showcase features a main act performing 45 minutes wedged in between up to seven supporting acts, each performing 15-minute mini sets.

That means Key has to spend considerable time finding and booking talent for the shows. Last year alone, he figures, he booked more than 1,000 musicians.

“This is what I want to do,” said Key, who also hosts all the shows. “I want to be presenting shows in places where the writers will be respected.”

Key started playing music as a Boy Scout. His father had tried playing guitar but didn’t get very far with it.

“But he left it in his closet, and I borrowed his guitar and took it to Boy Scout camp,” Key said. “I learned a bunch of Beatles songs and a bunch of Creedence Clearwater songs, and, of course, the radio was filled with the singer/songwriters of the day — Jim Croce, James Taylor — and I learned a lot of those songs.”

While he took a somewhat practical route through college—majoring in journalism at San Jose State — even then he gravitated toward his own thing.

“It wasn’t easy to get on with the school newspaper at San Jose State, so I just started my own,” he said. “I started a weekly paper.”

Of course, there was a learning curve.

“That was something they didn’t have at the journalism department — the idea of being your own publisher,” Key said. “They were trying to train you to be a reporter for the Mercury News, and I didn’t care all that much about being a reporter for the Mercury News. I liked the idea of creating something every week from scratch, bringing together photographers and writers and cartoonists.”

Eventually, he would work for other weekly papers, which would afford him the chance to interview well-known musicians like Joey Ramone and Jose Feliciano. But he would constantly flirt with greater involvement.

“Sometimes I found myself working five nights a week singing in bars, and some times I’d find myself working at a newspaper,” he said.

Key wound up moving quite a bit — to Portland, to D.C. to Nashville, to New York. It was in New York that Key really began to appreciate the kind of simple, stripped-down folk shows he would later promote himself.

“It was just very basic — just guitar and vocals,” he said. “(The artists) didn’t even have any artwork on the covers of their albums. They would just put out the record album for two dollars and sell them in the back of this bar. And I came home with recordings by Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega and some of the old songwriters like Dan Van Ronk and Ed Mc-Curdy, and it was just amazing.”

Eventually, Key moved to the Central Coast to be close to family. (His mother and sister still live here.) And once he began setting

up shows, he decided he wanted venues where people would pay attention to the music.

“In a bar, of course, there’s a lot of distractions,” he said. “Not everybody is there to hear music. Some people are just there to hang out, look at the TV or something.”

The venues in his series for February include the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, Senor Sanchos in Paso Robles, The Porch Café in Santa Margarita and Alisal Cellars in Solvang. Acts performing there will include both nationally touring musicians and locals.

“I feel like he’s definitely allowed a scene to happen and grow,” said Jody Mulgrew, a Los Osos musician whose band The Johnny Starlings has performed in the series. “I’ve seen some world-class acts come in and do a Tuesday showcase.”

At the same time, Mulgrew said, he’s also seen very inexperienced performers matched up with veterans.

“Surprisingly, given that format, the quality of the music is consistently high,” he said, noting that the acts tend to feed off each other. “Everybody else steps up and gives their A-game.”

Most shows will be free, though the Steynberg Gallery will charge $5 covers.

“It’s out of respect for the musicians,” said gallery owner Peter Steynberg, who thinks paying audiences will be more likely to stay longer and listen. “I think the most important thing is to keep the standards high.”

While the showcases will feature performers of all ages, Key especially likes giving people his age — 52 — a chance to reconnect with music.

“I run into a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who put the music aside for 30 years so they can have the day job or family, and then they wake up at 50 or 60 and they say, ‘Wait a second — I still enjoy creating, and I still enjoy performing,’ ” Key said. “I’m interested in the teenage phenoms too, but I enjoy seeing somebody later in years coming into a whole new form of creativity. I love seeing that reawakening.”